Science fiction and horror go together like peanut butter and jelly. It’s a delicious concoction that begs to be devoured whenever it makes its way to my plate. And much like the sandwich, there is no perfect ratio of jelly to peanut butter, each sandwich offering its highs and lows, but always delectably finishable. But every now and then, you manage to perfect the unrepeatable ratio and create heaven for your tastebuds. The Scourge Between The Stars, a debut novella by Ness Brown, is one of those sandwiches with the right ratios, smashing together well recognized tropes of the combined genres, while adding her own spin to the tried and true formula.
Jacklyn Albright is doing her damned best as the acting captain of the generation ship Calypso as it carries the population of a now dead colony back to Earth. Decades ago it was apparent the colony experiment was failing and Jack’s forbears believed it was best to return home. Amid a series of resource shortages, ship wide strikes, and constant bombardment from the not so empty void of space, a new threat has emerged on the ship. Where it came from is anyone’s guess, but Jack knows she has to face it head on. With her captain, her father, holed up in his cabin, Jack assembles teams to hunt down the possibly alien menace before it kills too many of the already overburdened passengers as they make their way home to earth.
It is apparent that Brown has been influenced a lot by the history of science fiction and horror’s inevitable dance. The film Alien weighs heavily, but it doesn’t hinder Brown’s agility in avoiding the claws planning to scrawl “derivative” into Scourge’s hide. Most of this is handled through Brown’s setting of the stakes. A large portion of the novella is contouring just how ragged the Calypso and its crew are. Environmental degradation within the various sections of the ship, rationing to stretch their limited supplies and the constant claustrophobia of being in space for too damn long plague the ship. It’s all cleverly laid out, highlighting Jack’s ingenuity in filling in for her absent father, taking on responsibility while trusting her crew. The dilemmas are shown in full, so the horror is related to the already poor condition getting even worse. It also showcases how Jack handles and adapts to a crisis before an even worse crisis occurs, so it gives the dance a lot of improvisational opportunities.
Beyond the dreadful knowledge that these folks are going to die a long, cold, and miserable death in space, the alien threat that rears its ugly head is fun and spooky in equal measure. Brown doesn’t seem intent on trying to make the scariest monster and showcase it, she instead opts for a monster that has found its niche within the ship. Jack and her crew have a hard time fighting it, and though they find some clever ways to dispose of the creatures, it always feels like a hopeless battle. Since this is a novella, the pacing is ramped up to the extreme and nothing ever overstays its welcome, tightening the tension. The atmosphere is laden with “even if we stop this, we still don’t have enough to make it home.” Brown balances the tension between the immediate horror of death by aliens with the nihilistic entropic death that teeters on the brink well. It was fun to root for the characters in the moment before being slapped with the cold reality that it probably doesn’t matter anyway.
Something I particularly appreciated about Scourge Between the Stars is Brown’s sharp eye for dissecting a well worn trope in science fiction, the android helper. In particular, the relationship between Jack, the android, and the android’s maker is rife with this commentary. It is mostly geared towards how folks project gender onto objects and beings, even as those beings are still figuring out their purpose and identity. At times it felt a little out of place, but it also sharpened Jack’s character especially since her own misgivings about artificial intelligence and resource allocation are called into question. On top of that, the bits about the void of space and what possibly might fill it are intriguing and I wish I could see more novels approach it with the wary tenacity Brown brings in Scourge.
The Scourge Between Stars is a thrilling, if familiar, ride with some great embellishment from Ness Brown. The main character is resourceful while maintaining a level of vulnerability. The state of the ship provides ample background for the aliens and humans to play in that will make the reader question, “would I rather die quickly and horrifyingly or existentially painfully and slowly?” If you’re looking for that near perfect science fiction and horror sandwich, look no further than The Scourge Between Stars.
Rating: The Scourge Between Stars 8.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.